Friday, 27 January 2012

Valuing experience

Ralph Stacey, Professor of Management at University of Hertfordshire, UK talks a lot in his work on complexity and change in organisations about paying attention to the quality of one's own experience of relating to and managing in relation to others.  It's this that I want to reflect on in this post.  To follow Ralph's work in much greater detail, refer to  Stacey, R.D. (2003) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity.  Harlow: Pearson

I have been talking this week to a couple of senior managers in a financial services client of mine about their development.  For one of the managers, they were making a presentation on their learning following a leaderhip programme that I run; the other was an informal conversation over a meal.  The connection between them was their insights about the challenges that they were facing in influencing others, be that peers, team members or their bosses.  Neither talked about theory or skills.  Instead, they talked about their deep-seated frustrations in practical terms.

Refocus attention on what managers are already doing, and have always been doing

My encouragement to them both was to keep reflecting and noticing how they are doing things and using these reflections as the basis for action. 

As Stacey says:

'...the main implication of complex responsive processes perspective is the way in which it refocuses attention, not on what members of an organisation should be doing, but on what they are already, and always have been, doing.  If there is a prescription, it is that of paying more attention to the quality of your own experience of relating and managing in relationship with others.  This is a reflexive activity requiring each one of us to pay more attention to our own part in what is happening around us.  This requires a reflective development of self-knowledge.  It means taking one’s own experience seriously.  The reward, in my experience, is to find oneself interacting more effectively, not only for the one’s own good, but also for the good of those with whom one is in relationship.'

What are the skills and competences required?

Here is Stacey's list:
  • Capacity for self-reflection and owning one's part in what is happening
  • Facilitating free-flowing conversation
  • Ability to articulate what is emerging in conversations
  • Sensitivity to group dynamics

These skills become essential to notions of leadership and the roles of senior managers and executives because of the greater power that they exercise on others and its impact.  

Can these skills be taught?

Perhaps, but not in an abstract way and not in ways that are clear and sequential.  As I wrote about in my post Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths, we are attracted to the possibility of identifying clear pathways and defined steps to go through, whereas the reality for much of our management learning is messy and nebulous.  We learn about relating to others in the act of relating and therefore if it is the experience that we want to learn from, we should take this seriously and use it as the root of our learning.    


Any form of inquiry-based process.  Although techniques like coaching and action learning could be used, these rely on making arrangements with others. I like tools that I can use instantly and I find techniques like Freefall Writing helpful especially for problematic interpersonal relationship issues or topics where you have a nagging concern about something or other but are struggling to articulate.  Tools like Evernote are also handy for keeping track of lots of different glimpses of ideas, which can be returned to later and reviewed.

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